Niagara Gazette

February 15, 2008

TIM SCHMITT: Sabres sneaking up on rest of league

By Tim Schmitt

BUFFALO — The arrogance of the Toronto hockey fan really is something to behold. As I rode quietly on a packed Metro car to Wednesday’s game at HSBC Arena, a group of Leafs fans felt compelled to give those decked in blue and gold a smidge of their infinite hockey wisdom between the Church and Seneca stations.

The most outspoken of said fans gave a hearty laugh and called the Sabres “a plucky little team that’s underachieving right now.”

Call the Sabres what you want — mismanaged, inexperienced, schizophrenic, and fragile all work — but to say that they’re underachieving now, when home ice in the first round of the playoffs is becoming a genuine possibility, is to show nothing short of hockey ignorance.

None of this, of course, is surprising. While Toronto claims to be the hockey capital of the world, all it takes is a look at the average attendance of the American Hockey League’s Marlies — which trails Worcester, Mass., and holds an uncomfortable lead over hockey hotbed Norfolk, Va. — to realize that’s a fallacy. Toronto is a Leafs town, end of story. It’s not Leafs Fan’s fault, he doesn’t know other teams exist. (Until the playoffs, when he adopts a north-of-the-border team that isn’t golfing.)

Still, Toronto’s opinion is typically the prevailing league opinion, largely because it’s Canada’s mouthpiece. And while the informed fan knows the Sabres are getting hot at the right time, the average fan — and apparently some Toronto fans — still no very little about the storyline that’s brewing in the Queen City.

It makes sense. Wednesday’s game was decided on Paul Gaustad’s goal from Daniel Paille. Hardly the high-profile names Leafs Fan thirsts for. No Mats Sundin or Bryan McCabe. In fact, the only big contract the Sabres are paying is on a former restricted free agent that hit the jackpot because another Canadian team couldn’t recruit unrestricted free agents.

Buffalo has primarily built through the draft, sprinkling mid-level free agents in where applicable. While McCabe’s contract saw significant discussion in the off-season, Nolan Pratt couldn’t beg for an offer through this season’s first two months. These two teams, from top to bottom, are as different as two organizations can be.

But give Leafs Fan credit for knowing something — these Sabres are plucky. Unlike the team that blew past opponents a year ago, the Sabres need to use all their weapons to win these days, even if that means giving Patrick Kaleta a growing number of shifts and counting on Clarke MacArthur for power play minutes. Lindy Ruff has been masterful through recent seasons at plugging holes with young talent, all in the name of keeping the train on the track, and he’s continued to pull the right strings this year.

With their big money free agents of last summer run from town, few seem to know about these Sabres, and those with hockey ignorance have dismissed them as also-rans. History has proven that to be a mistake as Ruff does his best work with teams that aren’t supposed to succeed.

But Leafs Fan probably knew that already, right?

Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.